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Food First: Iron—The Powerhouse Mineral 


Iron is a total powerhouse. It is a key mineral which is essential for the transfer of oxygen from the lungs to other tissues in the body (1).  Iron comes in two forms: heme and non-heme iron. Heme iron is most often found in animal sources and is more readily absorbed and used by the body. Non-heme iron is found primarily in plant sources and iron fortified foods like cereals and juices (1).  If you follow a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle and are not consuming animal sources of iron, it is still possible to get your daily requirements through food.  Consuming iron with foods that are rich in Vitamin C, such as tomatoes or oranges, can help to improve it’s absorption in the body.  

 Daily Recommendations:  

Women age 19 -50: 18 mg/day 

Women age 51 and older: 8 mg/day 

Men age 19 and older:  8 mg/day  

 Iron is unique because it is primarily expelled from the body through blood loss and in smaller amounts through skin, feces and urine.  In patients with cancer, iron deficiency anemia is common as a result of underlying blood loss (commonly seen in colorectal and gastrointestinal cancers) and as a result of decreased blood cell production following chemotherapy and radiation treatments.  Studies have shown that iron deficiency affects between 29-60% of cancer patients with certain cancer types (colorectal and gastrointestinal) more affected than others (2).  

 Iron Deficiency  

When the body has low levels of iron, it is typically referred to as iron deficiency anemia. Because iron is essential for the transport of oxygen throughout the body on red blood cells, iron deficiency anemia can typically leave those affected feeling very tired and short of breath.  Some other symptoms of iron deficiency include: pale skin, chest pain, headache, dizziness, cold extremities, brittle nails, food cravings or a poor appetite (3).  Once a deficiency develops, treatment from a medical professional is usually required and increasing food sources of iron is ineffective.  This is why it is very important to ensure adequate intake of iron before, during and following cancer treatment, so as to avoid a future deficiency.  

  ** If instructed by a medical professional to take a vitamin or mineral supplement, it is important that these instructions are followed. In some cases, food sources of vitamins and minerals will not be sufficient for addressing nutritional inadequacies. If you are concerned that you might be anemic, discuss your iron needs with your healthcare team.** 

 Sources of Iron 

 Below is a list of the most common food sources of iron:  

  • Fortified breakfast cereal 
  • Oysters  
  • Dark chocolate 
  • Lentils  
  • Beef 
  • Poultry  
  • Cashews  
  • Spinach  

Here is an iron-rich recipe to try as well!


  1. Iron: Fact Sheet for Health Professional 2018; https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iron-HealthProfessional/#h2.
  2. Aapro M, Osterborg A, Gascon P, Ludwig H, Beguin Y. Prevalence and management of cancer-related anaemia, iron deficiency and the specific role of i.v. iron. Ann Oncol. 2012;23(8):1954-1962.
  3. Staff MC. Iron Deficiency Anemia 2016; https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/iron-deficiency-anemia/symptoms-causes/syc-20355034.
Iron-rich Recipe: Balsamic Dijon Steak with Pasta and Spinach
  1. ½ pound New York strip steak or steak of your choice
  2. 1 teaspoon dried Italian seasoning
  3. 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  4. ½ teaspoon black pepper
  5. 4 ounces of penne pasta
  6. ¼ cup olive oil
  7. 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  8. 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  9. 2 cups fresh spinach, chopped
  10. 1 tablespoon fresh parsley
  11. ¼ cup crumbled feta cheese or parmesan cheese (optional)
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  1. In a small bowl, combine the Italian seasoning, garlic powder, salt and pepper. Use mixture to season the steak on all sides.
  2. Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Cook the steak for 5-7 minutes on each side or until fully cooked. Remove from the pan and leave on a plate to rest before slicing.
  3. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook the pasta until al dente. Save a few tablespoons of the cooking water prior to draining the pasta.
  4. While the pasta cooks, whisk together the remaining olive oil, balsamic and mustard in a small bowl.
  5. When the pasta is finished, toss it with the mustard dressing, slice the steak, parsley and spinach and mix in the pasta. Let the spinach wilt in the warm pasta. Season with salt, pepper and feta cheese (optional).
  6. Serve and enjoy!
Adapted from Girl Gone Gourmet
Adapted from Girl Gone Gourmet
Savor Health https://savorhealth.com/






Rebecca MacLean

Rebecca MacLean is a dietetic intern and graduate student at Teachers College, Columbia University. Rebecca received her undergraduate degree in Human Nutrition and Food Science with a minor in Sustainable Food Systems from the University of Maine. In her spare time, Rebecca enjoys home cooking and spending as much time as possible in the outdoors. She currently resides in New York City.

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